DENVER – Aurora’s new interim police chief Dan Oates sees his new job as a roughly six-month stint in which he believes he has three top priorities: reducing crime, partnering with the community, and making the Aurora Police Department more efficient, he said in his first interview since he started last week.
“Any department that focuses on those three things and creates a culture and environment with those, that’s what’s important and I think will be effective and also well-respected within the community,” Oates said. “So that’s sort of the mantra I’ve always preached as a police chief. That really hasn’t changed coming back here.”
The city of Aurora announced on April 20 that Oates, the APD chief from 2005 to 2014, would be the interim chief after the city fired former Chief Vanessa Wilson on April 6, saying essentially that she failed to “effectively manage the operations of the department, effectively engage with staff, build morale, and validate employee feedback,” as City Manager Jim Twombly said.
When announcing the city had picked Oates for the interim chief job, Twombly said it was because Oates “has established trust with our community and many of our officers, and I believe he will effectively manage the department and further the enduring transformation in public safety our community expects.”
On Tuesday, Oates said it was “surreal” to see the changes the city has undergone since he left.
“There’s a lot of good folks here and a lot of energy, and it’s the place I remember, but it’s different,” Oates said. “So, it’s kind of exciting to be back and to be seeing those changes. And it’ll be a challenge. And I hope to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the last time I was here.”
He said he took the interim job because of his love for the city and the department, and said he believes he will see the time pass “fairly quickly” before he can go back to retirement with his family in Florida.
“When this idea came up, my wife said to me, ‘You know, how can you say no?’” Oates said. “This city means so much to us. We raised our kids here. I’s a very special place and if I can help out, I want to help out.”
Exactly how much can change with the embattled department in roughly six months after years of turmoil is unclear, but Oates said in the interview he was “going to do the best I can.”
Last September, Attorney General Phil Weiser released a report based on a 14-month investigation saying the Aurora Police Department uses excessive force and racially biased police practices and violates state and federal laws as part of its patterns and practices. Based on the report, Aurora City Council voted to enter into a consent decree to fix issues involving policies, training, record keeping and hiring practices. IntegrAssure, a Florida-based risk management consultancy, was selected in February as the consent decree monitor to provide independent oversight over the department.
Oates said Tuesday that having the consent decree in place is a good start – a “roadmap,” he called it, on how to partner with the community, update the department’s policies, increase morale within the department and try to be more transparent with Aurora residents.
“There’s an awful lot of really, really good things happening in this police department, as there were when I was here eight years ago and continue to work on and advocate for and build on all of that,” Oates said. “So that’s kind of how I see it.”
Oates declined to comment on exactly what led to Wilson’s firing but said her departure “left a leadership vacuum” that he was hired to fill.
“I do bring 18 years in three different cities being successful as a police chief, and I’ll rely on those experiences and my instincts on how to lead the organization and develop leaders as best I can,” Oates said. “But I’m really not in a position to judge what happened before I got here.”
Oates said he thinks there is some low-hanging fruit in terms of policy changes that could be made and that he wanted to make more of an effort to be on the street with officers and in the community.
He said he believes it is a “tough time” to be a police officer after the death of George Floyd and nationwide protests against police killing people of color but believes that a new contract for officers and increased pay will help boost their ranks and bring in better officers. Oates also suggested utilizing the department’s officers who have come from out-of-state departments to do more recruiting in their former areas.
But he acknowledged he still has some catching up to do on changes to Colorado law passed over the past two years in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Elijah McClain and the protests that followed, as well as exactly what can be done to reform the department.
“A little early, but I mean, I have thoughts swimming in my head,” he said.
Oates talked about trying to reduce auto thefts in Aurora, though Denver7 Investigates reported in February the department had pulled its officers from the state task force. When asked if he was considering putting officers back on it, Oates said APD needs to be “inwardly directed” for now because of staffing shortages.
“I want to make sure that anybody that’s deployed is having an impact on crime in Aurora. So those are tough choices that you make as a police chief,” he said.
Oates said that aside from staffing shortages, he feels the department is “in pretty good shape” despite the string of controversies it has gotten itself into over the past several years.
“The individual day of any police chief is filled with trying to sort of address individual problems, come up with solutions, involve the team around you,” he said. “And I’m confident, as it always worked here when I was here eight years ago, that will work here again – engaging leaders and rank-and-file [officers], and in moving the organization forward.”
But Oates also said he has no plans to fire any APD officers.
“That’s among the most awkward and challenging and difficult things a police chief can do. And I’ve done it when I’ve had to do it, but I have no plans to do that,” said Oates, an attorney with a law degree, master’s degree in management, and bachelor’s degree in English.
In June 2020, amid the protests over the death of George Floyd, he wrote an opinion article published in The Washington Post titled, “I used to be a police chief. This is why it’s so hard to fire bad cops.”
He said on Tuesday of the piece that its point was “there is a simple fix to a lot of the challenges around improving the performance of police departments across the country.”
“It’s a lot easier here in Colorado to investigate misconduct and hold a police officer accountable than it was in Florida,” he said. “…I’ve testified in probably 30 or more arbitrations or civil service hearings over the course of my career around serious and challenging issues of discipline and holding cops accountable,” he said. “And the point of that article was that police chiefs across America would like more authority to do that, and less inhibitors in the law to prevent us from doing that.”
And though he hopes to not have to go through that process with his officers while he is the interim chief, he acknowledged it would be a possibility because of the department’s size.
“I’m about as experienced as pretty much any police chief in the country because I’ve worked so many years as a chief in so many different places,” he said. “And we’ll just see how it goes.”
Oates first came to Aurora after serving as the chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department in Michigan. Before that, he worked for the New York Police Department, working his way up from a beat officer to a command position where he oversaw 3,000 officers.
Oates left the Aurora Police Department in May 2014 after he accepted the top cop position for the Miami Beach Police Department. He retired from the Miami Beach Police Department and law enforcement in May 2019.
Oates said Tuesday he feels his experience, combined with the reforms already underway and the consent decree, put him in a good place to lead the department while the city finds a new chief – something Twombly said Oates would have input on.
“All I can do is be the best leader I can be for the organization and be a cheerleader and an advocate for good police conduct, good police practices, and behavior here, and show by example and help my cops with training, better policies, et cetera,” Oates said. “And as I said, the consent decree and the process that we’re undergoing with all these outside experts can only help.”